The Strangers Club
“I wish I could stop dreaming,” the bartender said moodily.
As it had all afternoon, light rain tapped without much interest on the high, narrow windows above the rows of colored bottles, windows that, by night, went almost invisible, given away only by faint stars, to anyone who dared look that high.
Ina was alone at the bar in the otherwise empty club, the only place in town which had yet begun to feel familiar to her. This was the first time the bartender had spoken to her in hours.
“I’m sorry?” she said, warily.
“I wish it would stop raining,” the bartender repeated, like a man with a long practice in wishing for things he knew he would never see.
A new spy, working for the first time, has all the same advantages as a newly minted coin, or a blank page: no identifying features, no marks or blemishes, and, most important, no history. For that single assignment, a new spy is still what every other spy strives for the rest of their lives to be: nobody.
For a handler, the moment is enormously tempting. To send an unknown into a foreign embassy, a rebel group, a smuggling ring, to send someone who, even in the course of their true history, might actually be a cleaning girl, a student at the university, a country boy looking for work on the docks of a strange city, unrecognized by anyone they meet, is a rare opportunity. In most cases, however, the rarity of the chance is balanced with the new spy’s lack of experience, and the risk both to them, and to any significant operation, should they fail their first test.
But now and then, someone takes the chance.
Alex Arlin was responsible, depending on which reports she read, for the deaths of hundreds or thousands of men. Ina’s government understood that. In some cases, he had actually acted in cooperation with them. They weren’t interested in vengance, or even simple punishment.
They were interested in a secret.
It wasn’t Alex Arlin’s secret. It was a woman’s—a dead woman’s. But Alex Arlin, who had been seen making a visit to her apartment in the week before her death, almost certainly knew it. In fact, at that point, it would have been almost impossible for her to keep hidden. What nobody knew was whether or not he had understood the significance of what he had seen.
The woman, before her death, had masterminded the theft of one of the government’s most cherished experiments. After her passing, no trace of it had been found among her things. There was a chance that the experiment had failed, at the mercy of an amateur, in which case there might, in fact, be nothing left to it. But if it had fallen into other hands, it could prove deadly to the innocent, and dangerous to the nation.
The experiment was a light, but an enormously bright one, contained without an obvious energy source or filament in a glass jar about the same size as a quart of peaches. Because of its strength, and the heat it generated, disguising it completely would have been dangerous, if not impossible. What was its purpose? That wasn’t relevant to her assignment, Ina was told. A light that bright had some obvious military uses. But, one of her handlers intimated, it was possible that President Rivi might simply have become interested in manufacturing his own stars.
In any case, if the device had been in the dead woman’s home when Alex Arlin visited, it must have attracted his attention, whether or not he understood what he was seeing.
Ina’s task: to make him tell her a secret he might not know he was keeping.
“A painter,” Alex Arlin repeated. By this time, he was an old man, but handsome, blue eyes bright in his sun-darkened face. A little less than half his black hair had gone true white, still curling despite the close cut. A broad scar shone on the back of his left hand, which at one time must have been cut almost in half.
“And you paint..?” When she didn’t go on, he added: “Lost horizons? Rain?”
She smiled. “It doesn’t always rain.”
“You are new here, aren’t you?” he said, nodding to the bartender as he placed a drink before her.
“I don’t know if I’m new, or just a visitor,” she said.
For the first time, she could see, she had his attention. Like any good spy, he looked away, now that he was interested. “That,” he told a blue bottle of gin, “may prove to be one of those enduring questions.”
Deliberately, she never asked him what had brought him to the city, in the same way that, until she kissed it, she never mentioned the scar on his hand. Was he a lover of art? Where had he traveled?
That first night, he told her the story of his earliest journey, as a young man, begun with his closest childhood friend, who had died on that trip, he told her, after falling three hundred feet down the side of a mountain, distracted by an indescribable sunset. Using rude torches and the sound of his own voice, Arlin had held off the mountain lions for that endless night, and at dawn begun to drag his friend back to the village at the foot of the mountain, a journey that would take him three days, the last parched with thirst due to his miscalculation of how much water he could afford to throw away in order to bear his friend’s weight.
Ina was fascinated. She had spent a week before her arrival immersed in his true history, and knew that the year he was now describing to her he had actually spent, along with several others, in the belly of a prison ship, the only imprisonment to which he would ever submit, and one which ended along with the lives of half a dozen sailors, who were unable to swim the short distance to land when the ship finally exploded.
The story he was telling her now, however, had none of a liar’s attention to detail or dramatic flair. He told it simply, even haltingly: an old man who had finally found someone to listen. Had some other old man told it to him once, at some other club, in a similar fashion? Had he heard it from another young man, even one of his victims, days after it happened? Or was it one of a hundred secret histories he might have created from the rags left to him in his own mind, while he was trapped in the belly of that ship?
“And did you leave him there?” she asked, when he seemed to have finished.
“I had to,” he said.
For a long moment, the two of them gazed at each other, without speaking.
“Ina,” Petren broke in breathlessly. “Will you dance?” Petren was a soldier, from her country, too tall for his uniforms, with eyes as big as a child’s, and still overjoyed, as he had been at their first meeting, weeks before, to see a girl from home in the foreign city.
The strangers club was just as it sounded: a club for any visitor or sometime resident of the city who didn’t belong in any of the more respectable establishments for various professions, military men, university graduates. Petren, of course, had a soldier’s club of his own, but since he had met Ina, her first night in the city, in the course of his long, blissful crawl through the town’s various watering holes, he had made a habit of returning to the strangers club, which welcomed all comers, to lead Ina tenderly and with great clumsiness through national dances neither of them really remembered, after which he would cling to the bar, and wax nostalgic about the girls, the skies, the bread of the country they had left.
This time, Ina hesitated. At once, Petren noticed the old man, and, with a drunken southerner’s decorum, raised his hand to his head, a gesture of respect.
“No, of course,” Alex Arlin said. “Please, dance.”
Ina glanced at him, but he was looking, not at her, but at the young soldier, measuring him with disinterested but chilling precision.
Quickly, as if throwing herself in the line of fire, Ina rose to take Petren’s hand, and led him through the maze of cheap tables scattered between the bar and the dance floor.
Moments after she took her accustomed seat at the bar the next evening, one of the girls whose bright dresses flashed turquoise, emerald, silver, gold, red, like rare birds among the drab crowd, appeared at her elbow.
“Mister requests you join him,” she said.
For a moment, the two of them regarded each other. The girl couldn’t have been older than seventeen, her skin and features flawless beyond her blue dress, her eyes already dead.
Then Ina inclined her head, and the girl pointed.
Arlin had taken one of the cavernous half-moon red leather booths, obscured from view by great swags of gray velvet, lit only by a small but dauntless candle which cast gargantuan shadows over the dark paneling. The booths lined the back wall, until they were interrupted by the dance floor, which ran on up to the stage that occupied the far corner. From his booth, Arlin could see everything: the bar, the dancers, the diners, the door, and the crowd, of less than a hundred, most faces, even after a few weeks, already familiar to Ina: the professor; the prospector; the ambassador’s son; the disgraced theologian and his plain young assistant; the white-haired lesbian; the men of indeterminate business with their diamond pins; the pretty, ferocious boys; the eternal girls.
“I like to consider myself a patron of the arts,” Arlin said when she stood before him.
For the first time, she smiled at him; then, at his gesture, sat down.
Alone with him in the booth, she was suddenly overcome with the shyness of extreme youth. Struggling to regain herself, she gazed out at glittering brass instruments of the band, its strains slightly muffled by the velvet.
“You painted today,” Arlin said.
When she didn’t speak, he continued. “And what did you paint?”
“If I could tell you that, I wouldn’t have to paint it,” she said, and looked back at him.
He glanced away, clearly displeased.
A smell like bourbon, lime, and smoke, which might have been his cologne, hung in the close air around the table. In the dim light, years dropped away from his fine face. His solid hands were scarred but still strong. One of the best ways to gain trust was to tell a secret of your own.
“It’s just the horizon,” she said. “In the afternoon. I say they came from my imagination, but they’re all the same: just the place I grew up in and haven’t gone back to.”
“You can’t, or you haven’t?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
With perfect assurance, he took her hand in both of his. A small blue flame lit up at the bottom of her heart, turning to gold as it brightened and spread, as if consuming paper.
The next day, she really did begin to paint, a vice she had never before indulged in, smearing a clumsy ocean horizon across a small canvas-covered piece of board she had found on the back shelves of the corner store, daubing in a gaudy sun, and then wiping the whole thing away with turpentine, leaving no evidence but the pigment caught in the crevices of the canvas.
That night, Arlin examined her hands. “Sky,” he guessed, at a crescent of pale blue that followed the curve of her cuticle.
He turned her palm over and found traces of grey. “The sea,” he said.
She shook her head. “No.”
On her other hand, he discovered the cadmium red of her unsuccessful sunset, and glanced up, in question.
“Flowers,” she said. “On the mountain.”
It was later that week that he began making confessions.
A young man from one of the continent’s southern states was seated alone at a table opposite their booth, just one of countless who would spend a night in the club’s embrace, before disappearing forever. Ina and Arlin had both gone silent watching him, caught by something in the way he watched the girls go by, eager but terrified, as if they were true angels, who might destroy him with a glance. In another life, Ina might have sat down with him, at least long enough to make sure he had a companion for the evening.
“Those die like men,” Arlin said.
Ina turned to him. “You’ve seen it?” she asked.
“A train full of them,” Arlin said, without reaching for his drink or her hand. “All fighting to push their friends through the windows.”
From her training, Ina knew this to be true. Hundreds of soldiers had died there, without ever reaching the front. She looked at him in astonishment, which she hoped he might mistake for innocence.
It became obvious to her almost immediately that these weren’t slips, or missteps on Arlin’s part: they were distinctly confessions, unbidden by her, often unconnected to the thread of their conversation. He offered them without apology or explanation, but with details so lucid that in the few cases that his accounts conflicted with her government’s intelligence, she was inclined to doubt it and not him.
He was haunted by faces and hands. Again and again, he named them: a face emerging from the smoke, only to fall back again, or framed in the flash of a blast before it vanished forever; hands clinging to wood or metal, even as blood seeped from them, or guns, flags, cigarettes dropping from them.
Sometimes the stories filled in gaps in his known history: a summer he spent in a room he’d carved from ice on the other side of the world; a network of treehouses in the vast forest that spread south of her country’s capitol; a one-man submarine he’d commissioned over all the engineer’s protests, which accounted for a decade of his disappearances, before it was scuttled or stolen by a pack of children from the docks of a neighboring nation.
He told her these stories as if she were made of stone, simply naming the events, as if at the request of some unseen questioner: a list of crimes so audacious that they would have made him a hero had they been committed in the service of any single nation.
Every few days Ina began another imaginary painting, chose between dawn and sunset, second-guessed herself, began again. Then the two of them sank into silence, watching the small world of the club spin by beyond the velvet.
And then, each evening, he kissed her eyes and left.
Ina never stayed long after him. In those small hours, alone on the starlit streets, she saw and heard all kinds of things she couldn’t be sure were real: the shadows of cats which turned to children and then, in an instant, back again; women in white who seemed to glow like the dead; flocks of angels or birds which blotted out the moon but were gone in the instant it took her to look up at them, and footsteps that seemed to follow her everywhere she went.
Back in her apartment, she tuned her radio in the dark to the proper station, decoded the instructions in her head, and then, at random, listened to the gentle voices of the children reading strings of numbers over the shriek or whine of noise codes in other languages.
When she awoke, Arlin sat in the winged chair at the window, as featureless as a shadow against the blinding sunlight that poured through the glass behind him. A dead man lay on the floor beside her, his throat neatly sliced, his hands clenched like claws in the rigor of early death, his blood an even oval on the pale wood beside him.
Ina observed him unflinchingly, then sat up and looked at Arlin.
“What do you want from me?” he asked.
“Anna Poe,” she said. “The light in her apartment.”
“I helped her take it to the roof,” he said. “I imagine it’s still there.”
“Thank you,” Ina said.
Arlin rose to stand beside her bed, and reached over the dead man to cup her face in his hand. “I didn’t kill her,” he said. “I haven’t killed anyone for years.” He dropped his hand and looked down at the dead man. “You might call him one of my—loyalists.”
“He told you,” Ina guessed.
Arlin shook his head. “I recognized it,” he said. “As soon as we met.”
Ina’s heart awoke suddenly, beating at twice its normal speed, as if it alone might be able to save the rest of her body.
By now, Arlin was at the door. “You can take care of this?” he asked, glancing down again.
Ina nodded, holding her hands and face steady with enormous effort.
Arlin smiled faintly. “You’ll do fine,” he said.